Ehrlich Courts Disabled Voters
Sunday, July 16, 2006
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was running late, but the students at the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick didn't seem to mind.
In sign language, they gabbed across the aisles, their hands darting, tapping and punching at the air. When Ehrlich finally entered, trailed by his new running mate, Kristen Cox, all the hands began to applaud.
"The governor has just made a trailblazing choice," said James E. Tucker, the school's superintendent, as he introduced Cox, a blind mother of two who heads the department Ehrlich created to focus on the needs of the disabled. "Wow! We just thank you for believing in us."
The brief visit last week provided a window into one element of the Republican governor's reelection strategy: the courtship of disabled voters. With a blind running mate on board and a first-term record that has largely pleased disabilities advocates, Ehrlich has plans to reach out to this often-overlooked constituency for help.
Records from the 2000 Census show that 13 percent of Marylanders have some disability, and many in Ehrlich's camp think the disabled could become a potent political force.
On the campaign trail, Ehrlich has begun to appeal to disabled voters, saying that "empowering people" is the mission of his tenure as governor. He repeated the phrase to the deaf students as he described why he elevated the state office devoted to disability issues to a Cabinet-level department and put Cox at the helm.
It was not "a feel-good initiative," Ehrlich said, but an effort "to empower someone to empower an agency to empower you."
In more than a dozen interviews over the past week, advocates for the disabled universally praised Ehrlich's decision to elevate the disabilities office and his decision to run with Cox. Both moves, they said, would have symbolic significance.
But many said that as they begin to consider whom to support in the race between Ehrlich and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D), the governor's record on an array of issues will be more crucial to their decision: Has Ehrlich provided enough money to enable the disabled to have access to public health insurance even if they work? Has he secured money to provide non-institutional settings for disabled people to live in, if they're able?
Ehrlich's record in both areas has been strong, most advocates interviewed said, but not without flaw.
The governor included $10 million in this year's budget to reduce by 1,225 the number of people on the state's waiting list for placement in community-based housing. Ed Worff, president of the board for Arc of Maryland, an advocacy group for the mentally disabled, said the governor's contribution was appreciated but not nearly sufficient to address a growing problem. The waiting list, which exceeds 15,000, leaves Maryland among the least effective states in the nation in helping move the disabled out of institutional settings, Worff said.
At the same time, Ehrlich included $10.6 million -- more than advocates sought -- to fully fund the state's Medicaid Buy-In program so that disabled people could keep their health coverage if they returned to work.